Swansea City 0-2 Arsenal: Talking Points from Efficient Gunners Win
Cool, calm, professional and efficient. Those aren't usually adjectives that apply to Arsenal, particularly this season.
However, Arsene Wenger's team was all of those things during their crucial 2-0 win away to Swansea City. The main talking points involve a new role for Theo Walcott, Santi Cazorla's importance and finding the right balance between defense and attack.
Arsenal are showing a commitment to using Theo Walcott on the counter
In reading a few of the match reports since the victory, it seems many are concerned by Theo Walcott's quiet performance. Ordinarily, this author would be at the front of any queue lining up to criticise Walcott's energy and application.
However, it actually seems like Arsenal are working on a new role for Walcott. There seems to be a greater commitment to use him in a more direct fashion.
Walcott is becoming the primary outlet for counter-attacks. Olivier Giroud is the front player fans will most commonly see drop into midfield and harass the opposition when they have the ball.
That leaves Walcott free to remain lurking on the very edges of the last line of a defence. Several times Arsenal players attempted to release him with one sudden and long through pass.
In particular, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was unlucky to see his punt from deep just denied by the Swansea back line. This may seem a painfully obvious ploy, but using Walcott in the most simplistic terms isn't something Arsenal have always done.
As this author has stated many times before, if the pass is right, Walcott is away and Arsenal have a goal. Simple, but devastatingly effective.
It's actually a good thing to see Walcott removed from dropping in on the flank, or participating in too much build-up play. He is purely an outlet player and Arsenal's game depends on using his speed the simplest way.
Dropping off instead of pressing is serving Arsenal well
Part of the reason Walcott can roam freely along the forward line, is Arsenal's commitment to dropping numbers behind the ball. It's something they did very well at the start of the season, but moved away from when their own attacking efforts suffered.
The games against Bayern Munich and Swansea have seen a return to this policy. It perfectly suits the defensive personality of the current squad.
Like it or not, since the move to the Emirates Stadium, Arsene Wenger has constructed his teams one way. They are dominated by an abundance of diminutive and slight technical ball players.
The Gunners therefore lack the pace and brute strength to effectively play a high-pressing game. Rather than taking a seek-and-destroy approach to defending, they must instead adopt a stifling policy.
By dropping off in numbers, Arsenal are becoming increasingly difficult to play through. The proof of that was Swansea's lack of clear-cut chances and no shots on target.
Arsenal's defensive tactics were perfect. Surrendering the midfield was absolutely the right approach against passing teams.
Forcing flawless accuracy and precision to penetrate a wall of defenders, is something Arsenal are used to. Wenger's team has certainly been on the other end of that dynamic often enough.
Had Arsenal pressed Swansea high up the field in numbers, they would have been picked off on the counter. This is something Swansea have done to them many times already in the recent past.
Santi Cazorla is Arsenal's most important player
Although it's stating the obvious, some Arsenal fans clearly need reminding that Santi Cazorla is the most important member of the team.
A return to a central position allowed Cazorla to flourish and became the fulcrum of Arsenal's creativity. Wenger's style of play needs an attacking midfielder who can excel between the lines.
That is particularly true when Arsenal play the way they have in their last two matches. With players dropping behind the ball, the Gunners need the ability to launch quick counters.
Cazorla's sudden acceleration and speed of thought make him the natural conductor of those counters. It was his gliding skill that helped create Arsenal's first goal at the Liberty Stadium.
Cazorla also played the key role in launching the break that led to the clinching strike. It was his smart pass that found Giroud in space, who then passed to Ramsey, who set up Gervinho.
It was a similar contribution to the one Cazorla made to the opening goal in Munich. Then his sly, threaded pass released Aaron Ramsey in space, bypassing Bayern's midfield.
Ramsey found Rosicky, who passed to Walcott. One cross-shot later, Giroud had a simple tap in to put Arsenal in front.
Any time Arsenal have played the counter game well this season, Cazorla has been the chief architect. Think Liverpool away in September and West Ham away in October.
Exploiting the space behind advancing teams with intelligent, classy passing is the value players like Dennis Bergkamp brought to the team. Providing similar quality consistently is Cazorla's importance to this team.
His passes between the lines can find pacey runners breaking from deep. It is the essence of Wenger's brand of quick and crafty football.
Arsene Wenger should be praised for his tactical flexibility, but he probably won't be
Speaking of the manager, he is due some long overdue praise for the way he has adapted recently. Since losing to Tottenham Hotspur, Wenger has clearly focused on setting the team up first to be hard to beat.
Few can deny there has been a significant change since the collapse at White Hart Lane. That shift was exemplified by Wenger's decisions at Swansea.
By letting his team drop off in midfield, Wenger knew he would concede the lion's share of possession. Indeed, Sky Sports stats show Swansea won the possession battle 56.9 percent to 43.1 percent.
Wenger was showing a healthy respect for Swansea's passing prowess at home. He also showed that stifling that passing, rather than outdoing it, was his priority.
When Arsenal went a goal in front in Swansea, Wenger substituted Walcott in favour of Kieran Gibbs. The manager so often chided for his negligence of all things defensive, swapped a forward for a full-back.
This certainly wasn't the reckless, gung-ho approach Wenger's critics claim he always relies on.
In a season defined by enormous transition, Wenger has worked to find the right formula for a new combination of players.
That process certainly isn't finished. Establishing a balance between a stronger commitment to deeper defending, while not reducing attacking flair, remains a priority.
However, altering how his team performs without the ball to secure points, is a tactical ploy most managers would be lauded for. Yet don't expect Wenger to receive similar credit.
Any defensive improvements will likely be deemed purely the work of Steve Bould. Wenger's contribution as the man in charge, will likely be glossed over, or ignored altogether.
However, if Arsenal maintain their current dynamic and form, it will be Wenger who should earn most of the plaudits.
Wining by two goals at Swansea after the deflation in Munich is a superb achievement. After all, only two teams have won there this season.
Dropping deep in numbers will ensure defensive solidity, but must be tailored to more fluid counter-attacking. So attempting to free Walcott's pace has to remain a key part of Arsenal's approach.
Therefore, Cazorla must be allowed to remain as primary schemer in the middle. His creative guile must be used to release pace on the outside and forward runs from deep.
Combine these things seamlessly and Arsenal will finally have a coherent team structure and recognisable pattern to their play. They could be enough to not only reclaim top-four status, but also give the platform Arsenal to seriously contend next season.
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